A little celebration is in order. I have finished writing up my Snowflake analysis of my next project. Now I can start writing the sample chapters and book proposal and send it to my agent! It took me just about a month to write that Snowflake, which is a lot of time, but it probably saved me three or four months downstream. I would have got it done quicker, but a high-priority interruption came in that I had to deal with–it was an opportunity that rarely comes along and I jumped on it. So that Snowflake would have taken about two and a half weeks under ordinary circumstances. Time well spent!
How do you edit a chapter that has been rewritten ten times? A chapter that you can’t get a clear view of anymore because you have all the ghosts of the previous versions haunting your brain. It’s been rewritten so much you can’t make out anymore if it’s good or bad or somewhere in between.
Randy sez: The answer depends on the context. If this the only chapter you’ve written on this book, then move on. Write the rest of the book. You’ll likely end up throwing away Chapter 1 anyway, or radically revising it later on, when you know the story better.
If, however, this is that one ugly duckling chapter that is killing the entire book, it’s time to zoom out and analyze your story a bit. What’s the big picture for your story? What’s the Three Act Structure? How does this scene fit into that structure? Do you really need the scene, or is it just fluff? If it’s fluff, kill it. If you really need it, and all previous attempts to fix it have failed, here is a radical suggestion: Read the entire book up to that scene (all in one sitting, if possible). Then write that scene fresh (not a revision of the old crap, which you already know doesn’t work). Write it fresh and see if it doesn’t just work better after getting a running start by reading the story just like a reader would.
A side note: I went to my monthly critique group last night, which meets in a Barnes & Noble near me. Naturally, after the meeting, I “paid the rent” by buying a couple of books. One of them is NEXT, by Michael Crichton, which I have been reading off and on all day during breaks in my schedule. And I have still NOT figured out who the main character is in this novel. I’m not sure there is a main character. That’s too bad, because the writing is pretty strong. But I don’t know who to root for. So the novel is not as strong as the writing (at least not for me).
D.E. Hale wrote:
In writing a trilogy, do I need to do one GIANT snowflake for the ENTIRE story, or just each book, or both? What’s the best way to go about that.
If the trilogy is a single story (like LORD OF THE RINGS) then you probably do. (Tolkien actually wrote LOTR by the seat of his pants. He had no idea who Strider was when he walked on stage.) If the three stories can stand alone, you can probably get away with Snowflaking each book on its own. I am starting work on a series now, but I am only Snowflaking the first book. I know more or less what the next several books will be about, but I don’t have the details.
For those of you who’ve read the entire Harry Potter series, it is obvious that JK Rowling had the whole story in mind from the beginning of book one. I doubt she did a Snowflake, but she clearly did a lot of planning on the complete series as a single unit and she knew her characters’ backstories and how those would drive the series.
On to some of that backlog of questions that we posed to Renni Browne:
My question: How do I know when I’ve over-edited and the prose is too spare? I write tight to begin with and pare down to make every word carry its weight. Because of this I have shorter scenes and chapters, and a lot of them. I harp on myself to keep the explanation within the action and dialogue (R.U.E.!), not the prose-but I worry that I’ve then left too much to the imagination and the piece is not understandable to anyone without a literary magnifying glass. (What do I do?) Okay, another question: Once I cut out a lot of the flab, I’m left with a long series of very short paragraphs. Is this a no-no, and if it is, is there any way to remedy the situation?
Renni answered: I’ll take the easy question first. You often see very short paragraphs in thrillers, but occasionally they do work in other types of fiction. They can also look or feel weird. Nonstop dialogue, for example, can be exhausting to read if it runs on long enough–it needs to be broken up with beats, interior monologue, a bit of description, etc. Also, if you have very short non-dialogue paragraphs in succession, consider following them pretty quickly with longer ones. As for your other question, overediting is a real danger. My best advice is that you pay careful attention to what you own instincts are telling you. You may already know you’re going too far–that may be why you asked the question. Do you feel that the prose isn’t rich, is too “bare bones,” doesn’t satisfy? Cutting flab is good, leaving things to the reader’s imagination is very good because it gets readers to invest a little piece of themselves in your story, involving them in it at a deeper level. But you have to make it possible for them to do that, and they can’t if you’ve left out too much, if you haven’t given them enough to work with. Again, what do your instincts tell you? They’re more reliable, of course, if you’ve put the manuscript aside for a while.
Randy adds: There are different kinds of writers. There are those who write lean and those who write rich, and you need to decide what kind you are. I naturally write pretty lean, so I don’t try to edit too hard or there’d be nothing left. In fact, when I edit, I tend to add in stuff. But writers who lay on the adjectives and adverbs thick to begin with–those are the ones who need to edit hard and trim out the fat. It sounds like you tend toward the lean already, so take it easy with that red pencil!
More on self-editing tomorrow.